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Mentors Not Martyrs

How Hollywood does educators a disservice by portraying them as saints


Many of us owe much of who we are, personally and professionally, to teachers, and some of us wouldn't be culturally literate without the mentoring of an educator. A teacher's importance can't be overstated, that's for certain, but I recently overheard a conversation among Idaho educators that made me think about placing teachers on unrealistic pedestals.

Earlier this month, I sat in the back of a Boise conference room where scores of Idaho teachers had gathered for pre-semester training (belying the long-held notion that teachers have summers off). The discussion was a lively one, but things took a turn when the issue of adequate school funding surfaced. I have been covering Idaho education for years and have heard many impassioned debates about why teachers were underpaid. Then one of the teachers suggested a rather unlikely culprit: Hollywood.

"I'm tired of watching all of these movies and television shows that portray a teacher as some kind of saint," the teacher said.

As she spoke, a flurry of images raced through my mind: Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love.

"It's almost as if a teacher is supposed to be something like Mother Teresa and take some kind of vow of poverty," said the Idaho teacher. "And that myth feeds into a cruel argument that somehow teachers are supposed to be paid less. For goodness sakes, we're professionals, not saints."

I was impressed and stunned all at once by her provocative argument.

Idaho teachers have been struggling for respect for years. To be clear, respect also means compensation. The 2011 Idaho Legislature famously ended so-called "continuing contracts"--code for tenure--for new Gem State teachers. Additionally, state lawmakers now encourage school districts to distribute bonuses to select teachers instead of across-the-board increases. It's no surprise that a number of Idaho school districts, including Boise, have rejected any separate-but-equal argument and instead offer uniform pay bumps across teacher ranks. In the meantime, the 2014 Idaho Legislature approved a K-12 public education budget of $1.37 billion for the 2014-2015 school year--still lagging behind 2008-2009 pre-recession funding.

Making matters worse, recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows Idaho elementary and secondary teachers' salaries are less than any of our bordering states, except Utah.

"Some of our people can't afford to be a teacher," Penny Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, recently told Boise Weekly. "We're losing Idaho teachers to Wyoming, Montana and Washington. All of them are paying more per year in those states. I just heard that Idaho has as many as 164 open teacher positions, and we're about to start another school year. And anyone who thinks that our teachers aren't paying for classroom supplies out of their own pockets is living in a fantasy."

Which circles back to Hollywood's portrayal of teachers. Education is a noble profession, but portraying teachers as martyrs does no one any good, least of all students. What impressionable child would seriously consider a profession not respected by its own state leaders? More importantly, our entire economy hangs in the balance. In a March 2011 article in Forbes Magazine, Erik Kain reported that teacher turnover in public schools was costing the nation as much as $7.3 billion each year, causing the unsustainable predicament of rebuilding staff after a steady exodus of teachers.

"No other occupational group in the country is asked to do so much with so little," said President John F. Kennedy in April 1960. "New classrooms, television, training and recruitment techniques cannot attract and retain good teachers as long as their salaries are beneath the responsibility and dignity of their position."

In 1989's Dead Poets Society, the late and much-missed Robin Williams played John Keating, an unorthodox and inspirational English teacher.

"Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary," he told his students.

Extraordinary, however, cannot be accomplished on the cheap. If entertainers who portray teachers were paid like, well, teachers, we would have a much more interesting debate.